NCI director Harold Varmus to step down

Fred Hutch researchers reflect on the Nobel laureate’s contributions to global health, cancer research
Dr. Harold Varmus (far left) with colleagues from USAID and Fred Hutch at the 2011 groundbreaking of the UCI/Hutchinson Center Cancer Alliance facilityh in Kampala.
From left: Dr. Harold Varmus, Nobel laureate and director of the U.S. National Cancer Institute; David Eckerson, mission director of USAID in Uganda; Dr. Lawrence Corey, president and director emeritus of Fred Hutch; and Dr. Corey Casper of the Fred Hutch Vaccine and Infectious Disease Division and co-scientific director, UCI-Fred Hutch Cancer Centre, during the groundbreaking event in Kampala in 2011. Jacqueline Koch / Fred Hutch file

Dr. Harold Varmus, director of the U.S. National Cancer Institute, announced Wednesday that he will step down effective March 31.

Varmus was appointed by President Barack Obama in May 2010 to lead the institute, which is the cancer-research branch of the National Institutes of Health. In his letter to the NCI community, Varmus said his decision to resign comes with “a mixture of regret and anticipation.”

Varmus’ accomplishments during his nearly five-year tenure are numerous, according to his peers. His influence was felt at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, in particular for his stewardship of important research programs during a difficult financial period, said Fred Hutch President and Director Dr. D. Gary Gilliland.

“Dr. Varmus' extraordinary leadership at the NCI, even in times of fiscal constraint, has enabled groundbreaking advances in cancer biology and therapy to move forward apace,” Gilliland said. “It is his longstanding vision that has led us, as a national and international community of cancer centers and investigators, to the threshold of developing true cures for cancer.”

Varmus spoke candidly in his letter about the difficulties of his position in the current financial climate, having weathered government shutdowns and the sequestration: “This experience has been especially vivid to those of us who have lived in better times, when NIH was the beneficiary of strong budgetary growth. As Mae West famously said, ‘I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor, and rich is better.’”

Along with Dr. J. Michael Bishop, Varmus was awarded the 1989 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine for discovering how oncogenes, cancer-triggering genes, arise in cells. Varmus and Bishop discovered the first human oncogene in the 1980s, working together at the University of California, San Francisco.

Dr. Douglas Lowy, currently NCI’s deputy director, will become acting director April 1. Varmus said he plans to return to New York City in April and establish a research laboratory in the Meyer Cancer Center at the Weill-Cornell Medical College.

Pioneering global health

Dr. Corey Casper, head of Global Oncology at Fred Hutch, is grateful for Varmus’ work in global health and his recognition of the growing toll of cancer in the developing world. Varmus pioneered the NCI’s establishment of the Center for Global Health, or CGH, in 2011 and, that same year, helped lead the groundbreaking ceremony for Fred Hutch and the Uganda Cancer Institute’s new integrated cancer research, training and treatment facility in Kampala, Uganda.

“I’m sad to read of the end of Dr. Harold Varmus’ tenure as NCI director,” Casper said “Dr. Varmus was passionate about global oncology … It has been an honor for us to work with the CGH.”

Varmus has worked for decades to improve global health, a passion that began, he has said, in medical school when he did a fourth-year elective at a mission hospital in India. He chaired the scientific board of the Grand Challenges in Global Health, an initiative of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and co-chaired the Institute of Medicine’s 2009 report, “The U.S. Commitment to Global Health.”

Among the actions that report recommends are generating and sharing knowledge to address health problems prevalent in low- and middle-income countries and investing in people, institutions and capacity building with global partners — precisely the goals of the Fred Hutch-Uganda partnership, which will open its new facility in May.

Asking — and answering — provocative questions

Varmus also spearheaded the NCI’s Provocative Questions initiative, a unique research funding approach to define new directions for cancer research in the U.S. Fred Hutch researchers were among those who received the first Provocative Questions awards in 2012.

Those awards “provided funding for questions that were really off the beaten track and promoted unusual approaches to problems,” said Fred Hutch biologist Dr. Robert Eisenman, who received a Provocative Questions award to ask whether new technologies could be exploited to design potential cancer drugs for previously “undruggable” cellular targets. “We wouldn’t have gotten anywhere near where we are without that funding. I hope [the NCI] continues to do things like that.”

Rachel Tompa is a former staff writer at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center. She has a Ph.D. in molecular biology from the University of California, San Francisco and a certificate in science writing from the University of California, Santa Cruz. Follow her on Twitter @Rachel_Tompa.

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